Calvin, the Confessor

Here is J.K.S. Reid in his Introduction to his translation of John Calvin’s Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God. He is concerned with underscoring Calvin’s procedure of thought and method per his “system” of things. Calvin’s appropriation by the post-Reformed (those who followed Calvin, through Beza, Zanchi, Perkins, Ames, and others) is a very “logic” driven system of coherence; i.e. they “finish off” where Calvin supposedly “left off.” Certainly they could’ve, but then again they “could’ve not.” This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories — thus the existence of “Evangelical Calvinism” in Scotland, and what Janice Knight has called The Spiritual Brethren in Old England (where they predominated for a time), and New America (where they were overshadowed by The Intellectual Fathers, or Federal/Classic Calvinists). Here is Reid:

. . . A good deal of nonsense is talked about Calvin, as though his system were logical in the sense of being rounded off and complete; and the statement by frequent repitition has become almost a commonplace. In fact his system has not this character at all. It is certainly logical in the sense that the argument moves carefully step by step from one point to the next. But, to do it justice, it must bejohncalvin7recognized as including elements not easily (or at all) capable of being harmonised — a complexio oppositorum, as H. Bauke says of it (see J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, p. 202). Of special relevance to the purpose here is the following example. Pighius objects to Calvin that the dominical command to preach the Gospel universally conflicts with the doctrine of special eleciton (§VIII. I). Calvin’s brief answer to this conundrum is that Christ was ordained for the salvation of the whole world in such a way that only those  who hear are saved. The universality of the grace of Christ is symbolised by a promiscuous preaching of the Gospel; the universality of the Mediator is paralleled by the universality of the call to penitence and faith. But at this point the harmony ends; the offer of salvation is made equally to all, but salvation itself is for those who are elect. It is the bare bones of the argument, then, that are exposed, even if the result manifests a certain awkward untidiness. There is no attempt to compel harmony or to systematise by force. That there is a consequent practical difficulty is obvious; and it is one which, whatever Calvin thought of it, was compelling enough to drive his opponents into another camp. The situation for Calvin is not really significantly relieved by what he adds to the argument. The universal offer of the Gospel does indeed have a meaning for those in whose case it is not effective. Quoting St Paul, Calvin says that for them it can only be a “savour of death unto death.” The logicality of the exposition is so far preserved that the universal offer of salvation has at least some effective consequence in all cases. But the parallelism on analysis is found to be specious; the awkwarx untidiness reappears at a different point. It does not now consist in the fact that the same offer of the Gospel sometimes has and sometimes has an effect commensurable with its nature and with the purpose with which God designed it, and that sometimes, on the other hand, it has a quite opposite effect, incommensurable with its nature and the saving purpose of God — it precipitates death instead of life, destruction in place of salvation. This goes to show that Calvin’s first loyalty is directed, not to formal adherence to abstract logicality, but to the facts of the case and situation as he conceived them, or rather as he conceived the Scriptures to depict them. The logicality of his thought is dedicated not to the formation of a system, but rather to the eliciting of the meaning and the implications of those facts which, as it seemed to him, belong the body of Christian truth. [John Calvin, trans., J.K.S. Reid, Concerning The Eternal Predestination Of God, 13-14.]

This fits well with Charles Partee’s point on Calvin as a “confessor,” more than a dogmatician; Calvin certainly had a logic and method to his theologising, but it was driven by his ineluctable commitment to say what scripture says — even if coherence remains tenuous. Richard Muller and his followers, and those he follows in the history of post-Reformed orthodoxy, have sought to provide, by and large, the “rounded-offness,” or logical coherence to Calvin’s enthymemic (unstated premises) articulation. It is this crux upon which this school claims to be orthodox, its orthodoxy is proximate to its genealogical lineage to Calvin himself; or so goes the thinking. Of course this claim remains questionable at best, since enthymeme is by definition “unstated;” the danger with discerning the unstated is that we might “state” where or what Calvin, in this instance, never intended.

Since, if as Reid has stated, the “lack of logicality” is real in Calvin, the door is open for, as stated before, multiform appropriation of Calvin. My contention is not that the “orthodox” don’t have a credible claim on Calvin, instead that their’s is not to be understood as exclusive. The history of “Calvinism” bears witness to this, amen, amen! 



6 thoughts on “Calvin, the Confessor

  1. I heartily agree with the substance of this article.

    The quotation from Reid has some typos in the sentence around a dozen lines from the bottom of the quote. Awkwarx and the long sentence after it.


  2. Are you familiar much with the historic context of Calvin? I’m asking because, while I love historical theology, I just wonder how much politics could’ve entered into Calvin’s certain open-endedness. Calvin was enamored with Luther, and believed (hoped?) for unity among Protestants. Obviously, he was no loose-goosey (to his shame, his “betrayal” of Servetus to the Genevan authorities and subsequent self-defense attests to this). But I wonder if Calvin left dots unconnected in order to foster a unity that his disciples closed so forcefully. I ask because I have no clue. Why did Beza, a direct student of Calvin, get it so wrong so quickly?

    None of this is to contest Calvin as a Confessor, but early Protestantism was hotly, and revolutionarily, wrapped up in politics and the fragmenting of the Holy Roman Empire. This led to those who believed in a kind of rival Catholic Protestant Church, with not a few hints of apocalytic chilliasm, and those who were court-theologians to cement the creation of new principalities, confederacies, and nation-states. How do we situate Calvin in the midst of all this? He is, unwittingly perhaps, the grand-father of Puritan New England, Apartheid South Africa, but not solely.

    These are all serious questions, and rambles from the top of my head.


    PS. Traditionally, confessor implied someone injured or maimed for fidelity to the gospel. Did you imply any of this in calling Calvin a confessor?


  3. Cal,

    I’ve read more Calvin and secondary lit on Calvin than anyone else I’ve read. Remember I come to all of my theological thinking from training in historical theology (which is what I “majored” in in seminary). Apparently you haven’t spent much time in my John Calvin category. No, Calvin was a Christian humanist, so there was a method to his theologizing.

    Yes, I know how Confessor is typically used, but I was using it ironically.

    I think the best book covering the area you’re referencing is the one we used in Reformation Theology class in seminary, Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform.


  4. Well I’m glad you’re so well read! I was hoping for brief answers (or links thereto) 🙂 And I wasn’t contesting whether Calvin had a method, but other considerations can determine the tone, scope, and direction of your writing.

    I’m generally favorable to Armstrong’s theory of Calvin v. Calvinists, but I know that is mostly maligned these days.


  5. Armstrong’s thesis is mostly defeated I think; I actually agree with Muller’s protests here, to an extent (although he over reads things and allows his theological bias to shape his historical interpretation as well). Although I do agree with Armstrong that Calvin was not a Calvinist, and I think Partee’s argument about Calvin being confessional in mode rather than scholastic is spot on!

    I also like to read Heiko Oberman for the history of this period and the impact that had on the history of ideas during the medieval and early reformation periods.


  6. Cal,

    I realize that all you can do is interact with what I write here (since you don’t know me), but suffice it to say, there is more to me and my theological formation than Barth and/or Torrance. In fact I never would have been open to them unless I had become entrenched in historical theology (which happened in seminary and through the mentorship of a former prof there who you’ve heard of here at the blog, Ron Frost). I just don’t typically write on that stuff, as much, anymore. It doesn’t make for the best blogging material, and as such I’m less inclined and motivated to write on stuff like that. That said, I’ll do it if I feel like it ;-).


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